The “Bruins at the Break” is a five-part series running this week that will examine the first half of the regular season and how it could potentially impact the remaining 31 games on the schedule.
Anders Bjork had plenty of doubters headed into his third pro season with the Boston Bruins.
Both of his first two years ended with major shoulder surgery, and he had managed just five goals and 15 points in 50 NHL games over those two seasons.
Bjork still had the skating speed and the raw skill that saw him turn into Boston’s top forward prospect coming out of a celebrated college career at Notre Dame, and he was still relatively young at just 23 after leaving the college world early.
But Bjork also played tentatively when it came to the physical and toughness requirements for a winger at the NHL level, and the injuries hadn’t allowed him to ever really put a dominant stretch together — either at Boston or at Providence. The fear was that a massive mid-ice hit he took from Matt Martin during his rookie season that initially injured him was also going to make him a little too cautious as a player moving forward in his career.
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This season has proven, however, that the fears were unfounded with Bjork, as he’s become the biggest surprise for the Bruins in the first half of the season.
Bjork has eight goals and 15 points while staying healthy for 43 games played in the first half of the season, and he’s established himself as a top-9 winger at the NHL with speed and an offensive game that’s continuing to build as he grows in both confidence and maturity.
With his combined work at the NHL and AHL levels, Bjork has 11 goals and 23 points in 50 games thus far this season and is vaulting past Danton Heinen in terms of effectiveness based on his consistent work ethic and ability to turn his blazing speed into offense.
Bruce Cassidy basically said in the middle of the first half of this season that Bjork needn’t worry about getting sent back to the minors anymore, and instead he’s become a winger who's given the Bruins options while trying to find some top-6 answers on the right side.
“I was hoping to see consistency. I have seen that,” said Cassidy. “I was hoping to see him put himself in less dangerous positions in terms of he got hit a couple of times going to the middle of the ice with his head down, learning from those experiences that it’s better off to give up the puck and work to recover it than try to make those plays in high-traffic areas. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen him attack the net, pitch in offensively.
“So really everything we’ve asked him to do, I think he’s checked off a lot of those boxes. It’s really nice development so far from him, and [he’s] adding some secondary scoring, which we want him to do. We don’t want that to go away because he was a scorer [at Notre Dame].”
At this point, Bjork is focused on continuing to elevate his offensive game while finding more ways to supply the secondary scoring that the Bruins desperately need behind Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. It’s getting to the point where Bjork’s play is going to demand that he get more looks on the power play, and perhaps even get put into the rotation for shootouts given Boston’s complete lack of execution there.
Bjork is simply happy to keep bumping up the offensive production and continue climbing in the lineup while at the very least entrenching himself as a third line winger. All the while, he is holding the promise he could be even more than that in time as he distances himself from his injuries and builds up service time at the NHL level.
“Part of my job is to produce offensively,” said Bjork. “It’s something I’ve been focused on when we have offensive zone time is holding it a little bit more and not just giving it up. You try to find a play and use puck protection or my speed to open something up. As important as that is, you also need to know when you should quickly get it off your stick and that’s something I’ve been watching JD [DeBrusk], Pastrnak, Bergeron and Marchand while trying to be better at knowing when to do that.
“I feel like I’ve been getting to the net more this year and have been around the net more. That’s something the coaches wanted to see out of me. But I want to be better in those areas when it comes to scoring goals and finishing off plays. That’s kind of the next step for me while still being focused on my two-way play. I want to get better at providing offense for the team to help us win games.”
Just the fact that Bjork has put himself back into an NHL position with a game that’s growing, and a value that’s increasing, is a giant step in the right direction after all the shoulder issues in the previous couple of seasons.
It’s also been a pleasant surprise for a Bruins team that will now have options with Bjork — whether it’s building his speed game into Boston’s core group moving forward or using him as an attractive chip in a trade that could make a major impact with the Black and Gold down the stretch, both this season and beyond.